How to write a great Anti-hero character

Mysterious hooded man watches (from a distance) takes a minute to look awesome…”

*cough* I couldn’t help myself  (PS if you have no idea about this quote, check out the video at the end of the article).

So, today I am going to be discussing the Anti-Hero!  Why?  Well firstly, I haven’t covered it before and secondly, my own story has one so I thought it might be a good time to bring it up.


What’s an Anti-Hero?

Now we all know what the Protagonist is right?  That’s the good guy.  And the Antagonist? Well, that would be your bad guy.

So who is this “Anti-Hero?”

To put it simply, your Anti-hero is a type of protagonist.  Male or female, they are often referred to as the “flawed protagonist”.

So they will be the main character we follow throughout the book but one that doesn’t really match up with the expected convention of “the protagonist/hero”

Quick point, I know in the past I have mentioned that a character should not be perfect.  After all, we don’t want any Mary Sue’s running around.

However, in my Creating realistic memorable characters post, I did discuss making your characters believable and including vices and flaws.  Now just adding a few of these does not make your character an anti-hero.


The Making of an Anti-hero

An anti-hero is not as simple as creating a good character and showering him with flaws.  Or even making him a bit of a dick.  An anti-hero is much more complex than that.

Firstly, you still need to make the character believable.  He also needs to have the flaws and issues that turn him from an actual hero/protagonist, into the so-called anti-hero.

Then he has to have just enough “something” that your readers will kind of root for him.


Let’s discuss flaws

An anti-hero is a person who is not a role model, they aren’t considered upstanding citizens and almost never reflect so-called normal social values.

To be frank they are pretty damn close to being villains but there is usually something that defines them as not being antagonists.

When it comes to fiction, it is funny what we accept.  Your anti-hero could be a blood-thirsty pirate, an assassin, a gang member… they could be a social outcast or a loner. They could be a corrupt cop… and if you write it well, they will still be considered the protagonist.

Let’s take a movie as an example: Pitch Black introduces the character of Riddick who is a criminal.  We learn he’s a murderer and escaped from a maximum security prison.  He seems to have little qualms about killing people, men or women.  So how come he is the character we see as the protagonist?

Firstly (possible spoiler if you haven’t seen Pitch Black), they add a bounty hunter character to run beside him.  This is meant to be the positive, law-abiding person intent on protecting others from such a man.

But as the movie goes on, we see situations whereby the supposed “protagonist law-man” is making decisions that turn him into the villain and Riddick into the (anti-)hero.

Movies are actually a great source for anti-heroes – a few off the top of my head are Bruce Willis in 16 Blocks, Denzel Washington in Man on Fire, Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino.  If you haven’t seen these movies, check them out to analyse the main characters.


Traits of the Anti-hero

Here are some things to consider when creating an anti-hero:

  • They can be sexist, racist, aggressive
  • They can be violent and commit extreme violent acts
  • They can ignore the plights of people
  • They are not role models
  • They are not always law-abiding
  • They can be unattractive or shown as shoddy or scruffy
  • They can be motivated by self-interest
  • They can do good, often as a means for themselves or for deeper reasons than to just help others
  • They do not always choose the right path
  • They are not always easily identified as being the protagonist

Not all these traits have to be in there but this list can help build a basis for your anti-hero character.



So, what is your anti-hero’s motivation?  Don’t just create a hard-drinking, violent man who hates everyone but who eventually saves the life of the pregnant woman living next door.

First, you would need to know why is he a hard-drinking and violent man?  What would motivate him to eventually make the step towards considering someone else’s feelings or welfare?

We have to have a reason to root for him.  To see beyond the vices and flaws to the person beneath.


How far will your character go?

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ SPOILERS ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

In Man on Fire, Denzel Washington plays John Creasy, a despondent, alcoholic former CIA operative who takes a job as a bodyguard for a wealthy family, looking after a 9-year-old girl.

Throughout the movie, we see him as a surly, anti-social man who seems to take no real interest in his charge other than what he is paid for. 

As this begins to change and he starts to care more, she is kidnapped.  The character then shows just how far he will go on a revenge rampage in order to find her.

It is well-written anti-heroes that can be supported by a reader.  They can be murderers, outlaws, violent and still, with the right creation, the right understanding and background and the right choices at the right time, we can support them.


Types of Anti-heroes

As with everything we can categorise anti-heroes into well… categories.  These are the main three and a very basic blurb about them:

Dark Hero

These are the ones who, while they do good deeds, will often do a lot of bad ones as well.  They will ignore all horrors going on around them until something sets them off.

These characters often launch into revenge acts and these can be pretty brutal and bloody.  They see the word in shades of grey and don’t always see consequences of their actions.

Barely a Hero

This character technically does good but usually for the wrong reasons.  They are one step away from being a villain in smarts and ability but for whatever reason choose to do good.  Usually, the reason is completely self-serving.

So while you still support them, there is always the wonder of whether they will flip completely to the dark side.

Classic Anti-hero

This character is plagued by a rough past, drinking himself into a stupor and unable to help for fear of failing again.  Usually, in the end, he pulls it altogether proving he is still a hero after all.

There’s often several failed attempts and lots of “talking him into it”.  He is more often than not the “tragic” hero and is often killed off in some self-sacrificing way.


Everyone loves a bad boy

Firstly, no they don’t and it really does depend on how well you write the character and his flaws that will decide if your readers actually like this character.

There is the rule of three – this is what three things your protagonist cannot do under any circumstances.  These are the three things that readers will not accept in a protagonist – even an anti-hero.

  • Rape
  • Child abuse
  • Killing the dog

Rather than me going on about these, read more about these “character sins” by checking out the awesome article at TheWriterSaurus.



The main point of the anti-hero is that, no matter how almost-villainous he is, he’s still a hero so should have at least one moment in your story that shows this.  Don’t overdo the “anti” while neglecting the “hero”.

He doesn’t have to sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity, though feel free if that’s what you want to do.  But he needs to show himself as being good in some way, otherwise, you will just end up with two villains!

Create a point where he changes or a situation where he maybe goes against his nature to do something positive or protective or just plain awesome.


Want inspiration?

If you want some awesome inspiration of anti-hero characters then check out the talented Joe Abercrombie.

An incredible author, his work is brimming with anti-heroes. Seriously, I think almost every character in every book is one and yet it totally works!  If you haven’t read any of his work, I suggest you add him to your Reading List.

~ ☆ ~ ☆ ~ ☆ ~

Want to see an article about something I haven’t covered? Let me know either in a comment or via my Submit A Tutorial Suggestion link.

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Happy writing

Signature & logo of Ari Meghlen

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PS: Here is that video that I mentioned at the very start of this blog. Enjoy 🙂


Title Image: How to write a great anti-hero. Image: hooded man stood in an archway

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